Fradkin (The Seven States Of California, 1995, etc.), a Pulitzer-winning journalist, captures the awesome power and monstrous consequences of earthquakes--and in particular the crazy, wild jiggerings of the San Andreas fault--in this elegant, at times breathtaking, environmental history of the dangers of place. Earthquakes betray the security of terra firma; they are omnipotent, obey no law, and pretty much reduce everyday folk to jelly. As a Californian fault-line resident, Fradkin has more than a journalist's curiosity as he seeks here to take the temblor's pulse, to get acquainted with this brief, complex, catastrophic phenomenon, its firestorms and luminosity, its sound of distant thunder. Interspersed in these pages is a guided tour, from Cape Mendocino to Mexico, of the San Andreas fault, that well-chronicled fracture between the Pacific and North American plates. Fradkin takes its measure on foot and bike, in canoe, automobile, and subterranean walkabout along the Hollywood Fault subway tunnel. He tracks fault lines, blind faults, fault traces and branches; he plumbs the mythological fashionings of earthquakes by Wintun, Washo, Chumash, and Yurok. He talks with witnesses of the Parkfield 1966 and Loma Prieta 1989 quakes, which he sets within the context of material known from the earthquakes of London 1580, Lisbon 1775, New Madrid (Missouri) 1811-12, and San Francisco 1906. He avoids the obsolete numerology of the Richter scale and finds much to report about concerning modern prediction efforts and precursory anomalies: earth lights and sounds, animal behavior, the vagaries of water well levels, and strange weather. And he gets very exercised when he considers the woeful unpreparedness of fault sitters, let alone the building codes that have more to do with avarice than survival. Fradkin's detailing of that most roguish of events is rich and dramatic, and the lesson is clear: earthquakes etch not only frantic, dreadful images on seismographs, but on our psyches as well.